The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 421-439

First online:

Paternalism and the Ill-Informed Agent

  • Jason HannaAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, Northern Illinois University Email author 

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Most anti-paternalists claim that informed and competent self-regarding choices are protected by autonomy, while ill-informed or impaired self-regarding choices are not. Joel Feinberg, among many others, argues that we can in this way distinguish impermissible “hard” paternalism from permissible “soft” paternalism. I argue that this view confronts two related problems in its treatment of ill-informed decision-makers. First, it faces a dilemma when applied to decision-makers who are responsible for their ignorance: it either permits too much, or else too little, intervention to satisfy its proponents. Second, the most promising rationales in favor of the view ignore the distinction between an agent’s voluntarily bringing about some state of affairs, on the one hand, and an agent’s voluntarily assuming a risk, on the other. I conclude that a decision-maker’s ignorance is irrelevant to the permissibility of intervention on her behalf. If it is permissible to intervene in a given ill-informed choice, it would be permissible to intervene in an otherwise similar but informed choice, at least provided that intervention would produce similar benefits in both cases. This shows that we should sometimes accept straightforwardly paternalistic rationales.


Autonomy Joel Feinberg Intervention Paternalism